Agriculture and Food in Crisis: An Overview

"Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?," asks the title of an article by Lester Brown in Scientific American (May 2009). Just a few years ago, such a question would have seemed almost laughable. Few will be surprised by it today.

March 23, 2023 | Source: Monthly Review | by Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar

“Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?,” asks the title of an article by Lester Brown in Scientific American (May 2009). Just a few years ago, such a question would have seemed almost laughable. Few will be surprised by it today.

In 2008 people woke up to a tsunami of hunger sweeping the world. Although the prospect of rising hunger has loomed on the horizon for years, the present crisis seemed to come out of the blue without warning. Food riots spread through many countries in the global South as people tried to obtain a portion of what appeared to be a rapidly shrinking supply of food, and many governments were destabilized. The causes for the extraordinary spike in food prices in 2008, doubling over 2007 prices, brought together long-term trends, at work for decades, with a number of more recent realities.1 The most important long-term trends leading to current situation include:

* increased diversion of corn grain and soybeans to produce meat as the world’s per capita meat consumption doubled in about forty years. As much as 95 percent of calories are lost in the conversion of grain and soybeans to meat.  * decreased food production associated with poor countries adopting the neoliberal paradigm of letting the “free market” govern food production and distribution;  * widespread “depeasantization,” partially caused by neoliberal “reforms” and International Monetary Fund (IMF) mandated “structural adjustments,” as conditions forced peasant farmers off the land and into urban slums, where one-sixth of humanity now lives; and  * increasing concentration of corporate ownership and control over all aspects of food production, from seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers, to the grain elevators, processing facilities, and grocery stores.2

One of the more recent causes for the crisis is the diversion of large amounts of corn, soy, and palm oil into producing agrofuels, the term adopted by critics worldwide for industrial-scale biofuels based on agricultural crops as feedstocks. Agrofuel production looked very appealing as the United States and the European Union sought to break the influence of oil producing countries and promote “greener” fuels (which are actually not particularly “green”).3 In 2008 some 30 percent of the entire corn crop in the United States was used to produce ethanol to blend with gasoline to fuel cars. Estimates of how much ethanol production contributed to the rise in food prices varied from less than 5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to upwards of 80 percent, as estimated by the World Bank.

The year 2008 also brought major crop failures, from Bangladesh to the grain exporting regions of Australia, where wheat and rice crops were devastated by drought. Scientists agree that such widespread disruptions in food production will only increase with the increasing destabilization of the earth’s climate (see discussion below). In addition, speculation at the local level (usually called hoarding) and unprecedented financial speculation in world commodity markets – an increasingly popular way to gamble as global stock markets plummeted – forced prices to much higher levels than they would have reached otherwise. With global food stocks at very low levels after several years in which consumption exceeded supply, crop failures in a few countries, and the new large-scale diversions of food into fuel production – combined with the longer-term trends – a “perfect storm” was created in which many people suffered greatly, and continue to suffer.

Although food prices have come down from their extraordinary heights of the summer of 2008, they are still considerably higher than just a few years ago. And food supplies, although ample to feed everyone if distributed equally, are still in relatively short supply. Today, approximately a billion people – close to one-sixth of humanity – suffer from continual and severe hunger. There are many more, possibly another two billion, who live in perpetual food insecurity – missing some meals and often not knowing where their next meal will come from. This means that close to half of all humans are either perpetually hungry and malnourished or suffering from varying degrees of food insecurity.

In the United States, even before the economic crisis that began in 2007 and the rapid rise in food prices in 2008, there were approximately 36 million living in hunger and food insecurity – an incredible 12 percent of the population without secure access to food in the richest country in the world, despite vast food production and ample supplies. Seventeen percent of its children under five years old, some 3.5 million, are estimated to be at high risk of cognitive and developmental damage as a result of inadequate nutrition due to hunger.4 This travesty occurring in the United States pales in comparison to the horrible conditions in the poorer regions of the world.

What are the prospects for the future? Are they really as dire as Lester Brown suggests? As we write this, a severe recession has set in around the world – deep and, perhaps, long lasting. It has already resulted in much more hunger and food insecurity in the United States and many other countries. How much worse can things get? Probably quite a bit, is the unfortunate answer.   

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